Jesus and his disciples have been traveling throughout Galilee. After a hectic schedule of teaching and healing and hosting 5,000 people for dinner on the ground, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain to pray.
As Jesus prays, “the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become dazzling white.” Then Moses and Elijah appear and start talking with him.
Can you imagine being Peter, James, and John and witnessing this event? I wonder how they responded. Let’s see… Luke tells us that “Peter and his companions were very sleepy.” They must have thought they were in church. 🙂
But then they wake up. And when they’re fully awake “they see his glory and the two men standing with him.” And then, as he is wont to do, Peter gets over-eager and proposes that they build three shelters on the mountaintop to capture the moment. Luke tells us that, as was often the case, Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” 🙂
While Peter is speaking, a cloud descends over the disciples and envelopes them…. which terrifies them. Then they hear a voice: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Sound familiar? It’s very similar to the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism.
After these fantastic occurrences, Luke tells us that “the disciples kept it to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.” Do you blame them?
This story is one of those it’s hard to wrap our 21st century minds around. Glowing clothes, transmogrifying faces, ghosts…Sounds like a sci fi blockbuster at the movies. But as a story of our faith? What are we to do with it?
When Nafis proposed today for his and Mahmooda’s visit, I immediately looked to see what today’s Scripture text was…then promptly started looking for another. Until I thought about it. And prayed with it. After spending time with it, I realized that the story of the Transfiguration is a perfect Scripture story for today.
For one thing, the scene takes place on a mountaintop. Mountaintops play an important role in many of the world’s religions, often because they are seen as closer to heaven, and thus as sites of encountering the divine. Noah’s ark landed on Mt. Ararat. Moses received the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus’ best-known sermon? The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ crucifixion occurred at the Place of the Skull, a hill just outside Jerusalem.
In doing some research, I discovered that Islam also highlights mountaintop experiences. On the narthex table, there are copies of a blog post that names and tells the stories of 8 of those mountains. http://www.iqraonline.net/8-famous-mountains-caves-referenced-in-islamic-history/
You’ll see that #7 is Mount Sinai, which reminds us that the three Abrahamic faiths–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–hold many of those sacred sites in common.
I visited another of those common holy sites on my trip to Jerusalem in 1992. On that trip, we were able to visit the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. (When I returned to Jerusalem in 2006, tourists weren’t allowed in that area.) We entered the Temple Mount area at the Western Wall. Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of it. It’s the wall where the Jewish faithful go to pray; they write their prayers and slip the small pieces of paper into the cracks of the wall.
That wall is the western foundation of the twice-destroyed Jewish Temple. The last time it was destroyed was in 70 A.D.—so those stones have been there a very long time.
In 1992, after slipping our own written prayers between the stones of the Western Wall, we climbed lots of stairs and arrived at the Temple Mount, which sits atop the Wall. On the Temple Mount are two important structures. One is Al Aqsa Mosque, a place of prayer for Muslims. The other structure is the one that stands out in all pictures of the Old City of Jerusalem, the gold-plated Dome of the Rock. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Jerusalem, you’ve seen the Dome of the Rock. 🙂
The Dome of the Rock was built in the 7th century by Muslim faithful as a place of pilgrimage.
The structure covers a large stone outcropping identified as Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah is the setting of several stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s thought to be the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac. Later, Isaac’s son Jacob takes one of the stones from the altar Abraham built and uses it for a pillow. During the night, Jacob has a dream—the one where angels descend and ascend a very long ladder. “Upon waking from the dream, Jacob anointed the stone pillow, which sank deep into the earth, to become the foundation stone of the great temple that would later be built by Solomon.
“Mount Moriah also is the site of an important event in Islam. A passage in the Qu’ran–the 17th Sura, entitled ‘The Night Journey’,–relates that Muhammad was carried by night ‘from the sacred temple to the temple that is most remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him our signs…’ Muslim belief identifies the two temples mentioned in this verse as being in Mecca and Jerusalem. According to tradition, Muhammad’s mystic night journey was in the company of the Archangel Gabriel, and they rode on a winged steed called El Burak…
“Stopping briefly at Mt. Sinai and Bethlehem, they finally alighted at Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and there encountered”—Listen up. This is good!—“Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, whom Muhammad led in prayers. Gabriel then escorted Muhammad to the pinnacle of the rock… where a ladder of golden light materialized. (Sound familiar?) On this glittering shaft, Muhammad ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of Allah, from whom he received instructions for himself and his followers. Following his divine meeting, Muhammad was flown back to Mecca by Gabriel and the winged horse, arriving there before dawn.” http://sacredsites.com/middle_east/israel/dome_of_the_rock.html
I remember on my visit to the Dome of Rock—in line with Muslim, Jewish, and Christian pilgrims—being overcome with just how much the Abrahamic faiths have in common. As I descended the stairs from the Temple Mount to rejoin my group, I wondered why people of faith spend so much time fighting about our differences when we could instead be celebrating our connections.
It’s something I still wonder. Some of the most faithful people I know are Muslims. As part of their faith, Muslims pray five times a day. Mahmooda and her crew help us with Family Promise because of the strong commitment in Islam to compassionate service to others. After the shootings in San Bernardino, Muslims gave large sums of money to assist the families affected by those shootings. Our Muslim brothers and sisters can teach us so much about living faith with passion and integrity! There is so much that we can learn from each other.
Perhaps a good place to start these conversations is with our common stories, our common holy sites…our common ancestors. Can we not begin with these things as a foundation for learning about each others’ faith and in our collaboration act the world into well-being? Can we not follow our president who reminded us this week that “Mere tolerance of different religions is not enough. Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity.”?
I’ve gone rogue today and have pulled in a reading not prescribed by the lectionary. But if the lectionary folks had known Nafis and Mahmooda were coming today, they would have included it I’m sure. We heard it read earlier. Let’s hear Isaiah 2:2-3 again.
“In the last days, the mountain of God’s holy [dwelling] will be established as the most important mountain and raised above all other hills—all nations will stream toward it. Many people will come and say: ‘Come, let us climb God’s mountain to the holy place of God…that we may be instructed in God’s ways and walk in God’s paths.’”
This is one of the best images ever….because—Think about it. What happens when people stream from all directions and climb a mountain together? The closer they get to the top, the closer they get to God, the closer they get to holiness, the closer they get each other. Or maybe it’s that, the closer we get to each other, the closer we get to holiness. Perhaps the best way to meet God is to spend time with and learn from each other. Perhaps we love God best when we love each other well. Perhaps we act God into well-being when we act each other into well-being.
And perhaps having climbed our small mountain of God today, we too will be transfigured, transformed. Perhaps today on our mountaintop with our Christian brothers and sisters, with our Muslim friends…perhaps in our sharing, in our speaking, in our listening… perhaps we too will be empowered and strengthened for the journey that lies before us. Perhaps we too will come closer to each other in understanding. Perhaps we too will become more holy.
And perhaps in our transformation, the world will become a better place, a kinder place, a safer place, a more loving place.
God willing, this will happen. Perhaps our presence here today means that it already is happening.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2016
(Luke 9:28-36; Isaiah 2:2-3)